April 30

Dysfunctional Teams and the Wisdom of Ants

The following insights were gleaned from a presentation at INDUSTRY given by Kirsten Butzow, formerly at Pragmatic Marketing (now at Salt River Project) @KirstenButzow. Download Product Management TACTICS eBook for more.

Cross-functional interaction is critical for success.  This is true for any team, but product teams in particular.  Surprisingly, an analog and useful metaphor for thriving product teams can be derived from ants.  Yes… ants.

Ants are known for being highly efficient and effective team members. They have a shared vision. They have clarity and know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Your shared vision is critical to creating a high functioning team.  Your products and technology aren’t your vision. They’re what help you achieve it.

Have you noticed that not everybody is completely aligned and that shared vision doesn’t seem to be “shared” so much anymore?  Then it’s important to re-calibrate your vision statement. Ensure you’re all marching in the same direction in fulfillment of the bigger goal. Ask, “Do I believe it? Can it succeed?”

If people don’t buy in, it won’t work. This creates infighting, which just leads to more issues within your team.  Convert your vision into something tangible that people can believe in and truly buy into.

Consider how ants essentially form a superorganism by working together. Think how your team can function together as a single unit as opposed to a collection of individuals working separately.  Organizations tend to overemphasize their organizational chart. This shouldn’t be the case, though. The focus should instead be on the work that needs to be done — regardless of what the organizational chart looks like. If it isn’t, people will find workarounds. The system breaks down quickly from here.

You can create a great shared vision, commitment in it, and succeed with it.  If ants can do this successfully, product teams certainly can, too.

To view Kirsten’s full presentation, visit http://productcollective.com/dysfunctional-teams-wisdom-ants/.

Paul McAvinchey

About the author

For over 15 years, Paul has been building and collaborating on digital products with fast-growing startups and global brands, including AOL and WMS Gaming. Currently, he's a co-founder of Product Collective, a worldwide community of product people. Members collaborate on Slack, meet at INDUSTRY: The Product Conference, listen to Rocketship.fm, learn at Product Interviews and get a weekly brief that includes best practices in product management. In recent years he led business development at DXY, a leading product design firm in the Midwest, and product innovation at MedCity Media, a publishing startup acquired by Breaking Media in 2015.


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